RIO DE JANEIRO — A brief respite from the heaviness of news coverage of numerous wars comes every four years when the Olympic Games once again top headlines, but while Americans have the undeniable luxury of simply tuning in to watch, for many competing outlets, that respite is all too real.
Many of those wars have been waged in the name of U.S. hegemony and imperialism — often their true motivation has far more to do with a given country’s natural resources or geostrategic importance than fighting any terrorist boogeyman, as propaganda would have you believe.
Millions have perished around the world as a result, and millions more have been forced from their war-ravaged homelands, often to be met with hostility in the United States and other Western nations responsible for their displacement. Losing everything familiar — home, security, belongings, the memory of location — would be difficult on its own, but for a small group of imperialism’s refugees, displacement can signal the end of lifelong aspirations to compete with the world’s best athletes in the Olympics.
This year, however, for the first time, those refugee-athletes from all over the planet were granted quite the different respite: They were invited to compete for the first time in history without the obligatory condition of a single nation’s flag as an Olympic team.
As ten refugees compete in a variety of events in Rio, from judo to marathon running to swimming, they’re forming a “symbol of hope” for refugees the world over and calling imperative attention to the struggles of millions of displaced by war and conflict.
Despite the previous insistence of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that politics have no place at the Games, this refugee team, as well as Team Palestine and others, nonetheless inherently highlights political plight. These athletes tend to participate with a pride not rooted solely in personal glory, but with a poignant reminder that the struggle for an invitation to the Olympics is sometimes about more than just competing against those with similar athletic skills.
By providing refugees a team not previously available with which to compete with the planet’s best athletes, the IOC finally stepped outside its apolitical stance.
“These refugees have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem,” IOC President Thomas Bach asserted at the team’s unveiling in June.
“We will offer them a home in the Olympic Village together will all the athletes of the world. The Olympic anthem will be played in their honor and the Olympic flag will lead them into the Olympic Stadium. This will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis.”
As the ten refugees marched together at the opening ceremony in Rio’s Maracana Stadium on Aug. 5, the crowd in attendance — aware of what could be considered almost insurmountable odds — responded in kind with a standing ovation.
Each of the ten refugees, after all, faced odds the audience and most other Olympians couldn’t fathom.
‘I want to tell them not to give up, to keep going’
Rami Anis, 25, began swimming at the age of 14 in his hometown of Aleppo, Syria, a city embroiled in multi-faceted conflict, first through the country’s ongoing civil war, then also by violent militants of Daesh (the terrorist group commonly referred to in the West as ISIS or ISIL). Anis’ family fled Aleppo for Istanbul as the Syrian civil war intensified, and he continued training. But because Anis isn’t a Turkish national, he couldn’t compete in national events. It seemed his dream of competing in the Olympics would end by default.
“I thought I would be in Turkey for a couple of months and then return to my country,” Anis said of leaving Syria with just two jackets, two pairs of pants, and two T-shirts.
From Turkey, Anis managed to survive the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece in a dinghy before ultimately seeking asylum in Belgium.
On Aug. 9, Anis achieved a personal best in the men’s 100-meter freestyle swim — winning sixth place. And though his time fell short of continuing to the semi-final, the crowd roared with the applause “normally only meted out to record-breakers and gold medallists.”
“I was a little scared and tense before the race, but at the same time I always knew that this event was the preparation for my specialty, which is the 100m butterfly,” Anis noted as he left the pool. “It’s wonderful to be the star of an event like this, at which refugees have drawn so much attention.”
Anis hopes to compete again in the 2020 Olympics — next time, representing Syria. This year, however, he wants to call attention to the ongoing refugee crisis, and give others in his situation hope.
“I want to send the best possible image of refugees, of Syrians, of everyone who suffers injustice in the world,” Anis continued. “I want to tell them not to give up, to keep going.”
‘After the pain, after the storm, come calm days’
Swimmer Yusra Mardini nearly died when she made the harrowing journey across the Mediterranean from Syria two years ago.
Just 30 minutes after the overstuffed dinghy of 20 people left the shores of Turkey, the boat’s motor stopped, threatening to capsize. Mardini, her sister, and another woman plunged into the water to pull the small craft and its occupants back to the safety of land.
“All the people on the boat were praying,” she recalled. “It was quite hard to think that you are a swimmer and you might end up dying in the water.”
She and the others are credited with saving the lives of everyone on board.
“Only four out of 20 on the boat knew how to swim,” she said, illustrating the profound desperation of war’s countless refugees. “It would have been shameful if the people on our boat drowned. I wasn’t going to sit there.”
Mardini eventually arrived in Germany, where she began training and her talents received recognition.
On Aug. 6, the 18-year-old swimmer lived part of her dream, competing in the 100-meter butterfly in preliminary rounds. Though her 41st place finish missed qualifying for semi-finals, simply being part of the refugee team in Rio mattered most to her.
“I knew it would be difficult,” Mardini said after the heat. “But just being here makes it worth it.”
Like Anis, Mardini views Rio as a starting point for future Olympic competition, and also looks to Tokyo’s 2020 Games for more serious aspirations. Also like Anis, Mardini exited the pool after her event to thunderous applause.
“I have to thank the fans so much for their support, and on Wednesday I hope to do better,” she said, referring to the 100-meter freestyle event that she would go on to compete in on Aug. 10.
Before the Games began, Mardini offered a message of inspiration to Syrians and other refugees around the world: “I want to show everyone that after the pain, after the storm, come calm days.”
‘Because I have been supported by someone, I also want to support someone’
James Nyang Chiengjiek had to flee his homeland of South Sudan at the age of 13 to avoid possible capture by rebels with plans to make him a child soldier.
At 11 years old, Chiengjiek lost his father, a soldier in the country’s civil war. He continued tending cattle in Bentiu until the risk of being forced to fight intensified.
“Even if you are 10 years old they can recruit you to join them,” the runner explained. “I saw that I wasn’t well enough to join the army, so I ran away.”
Like so many other “Lost Boys of Sudan,” Chiengjiek traveled thousands of miles, eventually arriving in Kenya in 2002, at the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees-supported Kakuma Camp. Once he began training with older students at the camp, which is located on a highland known for producing long-distance runners, Chiengjiek’s natural talent quickly gained recognition.
“That’s when I realized I could make it as a runner,” he noted, “and if God gives you a talent, you have to use it.”
Conditions at the camp, of course, were anything but ideal. Runners lacked fundamental equipment, and were forced to improvise solutions.
“We all got injuries because of the wrong shoes we had. Then we shared. If maybe you have two pairs of shoes, then you help the one that has none.”
While Chiengjiek failed to advance beyond the first round in the 400-meter run in Rio on Aug. 12, he has goals beyond competition in the Games.
“My dream is to get good results at the Olympics and also to help people,” the 28-year-old runner explained. “Because I have been supported by someone, I also want to support someone.”
Singular stories of struggle, hope
Rounding out the IOC Refugee Team are Rose Nathike Lokonyen and Yiech Pur Biel, 800-meter runners from South Sudan; Yonas Kinde, a marathoner originally hailing from Ethiopia; Yolande Bukasa and Popole Misenga, both judokas from Congo; and Anjelina Nadai Lohalith and Paulo Amotun, 1,500-meter runners hailing from South Sudan.
Each athlete came to Rio for the Olympics with a singular story of struggle, but the refugees grappled with much more than the typical injuries, defeats, and victories so common in athletic competition.
Forced by hegemonic and civil conflict to grapple with both the physical and psychological scars of abandoning their homes, this refugee team — and its gracious warmth and compassion — provides unparalleled inspiration to the world with a deeply personal perspective on the cruel repercussions of war.
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